un'altra Italia è possibile

Fit to run Italy?

April 26th 2001
From The Economist print edition

The known facts about Silvio Berlusconi, never mind the unanswered questions, rule him out for high office, even though his countrymen seem poised to make him prime minister

Hoping for leniency
Vedi la copertina

IN ANY self-respecting democracy it would be unthinkable that the man assumed to be on the verge of being elected prime minister would recently have come under investigation for, among other things, money-laundering, complicity in murder, connections with the Mafia, tax evasion and the bribing of politicians, judges and the tax police. But the country is Italy and the man is Silvio Berlusconi, almost certainly its richest citizen. As our own investigations make plain (see article), Mr Berlusconi is not fit to lead the government of any country, least of all one of the world’s richest democracies.

Many of Mr Berlusconi’s supporters, who include most of Italy’s businessmen, decry such criticism as born of naivety, ignorance and malevolence. They say that it is he, not the Italian people, who is the victim of dishonesty. They say that ever since he entered politics, only seven years ago, he has been persecuted by left-wing magistrates, journalists and politicians, all jealous of his wealth and fearful of his intention to renovate Italy and do away with the old guard. They add, moreover, that even if Mr Berlusconi did pay off tax inspectors (under duress, of course), what of it? That was the way that business in Italy was done when he made his fortune. He was no worse than anyone else—only cleverer, and a bigger target. Why pick on the man who has the vision, flair and courage to offer his services so magnanimously to the nation?

Besides, the excusers’ mantra goes on, it has become clear that most Italians, including many on the left, have grown bored with the long-running saga of Mr Berlusconi’s legal travails. Many of his countrymen have a not-so-sneaking regard for the way in which he has cocked a snook at the tax laws—and at the authority of the state. If he can do so well for himself, surely he is all the more qualified to help Italians at large.

Plausible but wrong
Alas, nothing in this barrel of casuistry holds water. The questions and concerns about Mr Berlusconi are voiced not just by opponents on the left. The notion that he was himself the main victim of dishonest tax inspectors and malign magistrates is fanciful. Never do those who defend him mention the losses to the state—in other words, the Italian people—that would result from the waiving of taxes by the tax inspectors he is said to have bribed. Besides, Mr Berlusconi is under investigation for crimes that are not mere peccadillos committed in the face of red tape and nitpicking taxmen. True, under Italy’s tortuous judicial system, in only one case against him has a final verdict been handed down: this case involved illegal political donations and the court did not find him innocent. But our investigation shows that he has a compelling case to answer on a string of grave charges. In addition, his strange and long-standing reluctance to explain the origin of his earliest sources of wealth casts a pall over his entire business reputation.

In any event, in any normal country the voters—and probably the law—would not have given Mr Berlusconi his chance at the polls without first obliging him to divest himself of many of his wide-reaching assets. The conflict of interest between his own business and affairs of state would be gargantuan. Worth perhaps $14 billion, he is intricately involved in vast areas of Italian finance, commerce and broadcasting with ramifications into almost every aspect of business and public life; his empire includes banks, insurance, property, publishing, advertising, the media and football. Even during his ill-fated earlier stint as prime minister, in 1994, he issued an array of decrees that impinged heavily on his commercial activities. If he wins again on May 13th, he will control a good 90% of all national television broadcasting. He has made not the slightest effort to resolve this clear conflict.

Why so little concern in Italy?
There are historical reasons why so many Italians are unswayed by the case for keeping Mr Berlusconi out of high office. It is a sad truth that for years they had little cause to respect the institutions or rules of the state. Until a decade ago, Italy was run according to a corrupt arrangement under which all the supposedly respectable parties, usually led by the Christian Democrats, ruled in perpetual but oft-changing coalition to keep communists and fascists out of office. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, centrists and refashioned ex-communists filled the gap that opened up on the left, while Mr Berlusconi’s movement jumped into the vacuum on the right. The mani pulite (clean hands) campaign against corruption after 1992 was enthusiastically taken up by the people and, all in all, venality is less pervasive than it was. But the same old attitude of disrespect for laws, institutions and the courts lingers. And Mr Berlusconi, peddling amiability and showmanship, has persuaded many Italians that he at least stands for something new. We show that in the central matter of probity that is not so.

Which is far from saying that Mr Berlusconi does not offer some sensible policies, or that Italy has no need of reform. The judicial system might well benefit from an overhaul. Indeed, the entire constitution is ripe for change. The executive is too weak, the legislature too prone to indecision, the voting system too proportional. But these problems are of a different order to the one of suspected criminality at the top.

Mr Berlusconi’s strongest claim is that many of the charges against him—whether of conflict of interest or of much greater crimes—have been known for years, and yet most Italians seem untroubled. In other words, though the judiciary may not agree, the court of public opinion finds him innocent. If the judiciary is indeed politically motivated, that is a terrible condemnation of the Italian state. If, on the other hand, the judiciary is independent, the public’s acquittal is a terrible condemnation of the electorate. Either way, the election of Mr Berlusconi as prime minister would mark a dark day for Italian democracy and the rule of law.


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